The Royals’ acquisition of Danny Valencia, at first glance, gives some clarity about what the team’s bench will look like when next season starts. I mentioned on Wednesday that I thought Valencia’s presence would push Justin Maxwell off the roster, meaning that Jarrod Dyson, Emilio Bonifacio, and Brett Hayes (or Backup Catcher X) would join Valencia as Royals’ reserves in 2014. Because most teams employ a 7-man bullpen in today’s game, there just wouldn’t be room for a 5th outfielder. However, after more consideration, I would like to think my initial thought was wrong.
I’m not alone in believing that 7-man bullpens, generally, are a waste of a roster spot. Even with starting pitchers not throwing as many innings as they did in “the good old days,” a team with a solid starting rotation shouldn’t really need more than a closer, a couple of setup men, a couple of lefties, and a long reliever. Last year, 15 pitchers in the Royals’ bullpen threw a combined 461.2 innings. Five relievers threw at least 48 innings each, and another four were right around 30 innings each. Why couldn’t the team have used a 6-man bullpen last season, simply rotating the 5th and 6th spots between Kansas City and Omaha throughout the season? There’s something to be said for keeping relief arms fresh, but the Royals have a ridiculously deep bullpen, and a lot of that depth is still very young and controllable. Those factors make a 6-man bullpen seem like an even better idea. Several of the relievers still have options remaining, so if anyone gets tired, he can be shipped to Omaha for a couple weeks until he’s needed back in Kansas City. The theory is sound, and I do think with the right rotation, a 6-man bullpen could be more effective for the Royals.
The question then becomes: is this the right rotation?
Before getting into the current rotation, here are some numbers from 2013: James Shields, Ervin Santana, and Jeremy Guthrie combined to throw 651.1 innings, which averaged out to almost 6.2 innings per start. The other 6 pitchers who made at least 1 start for the Royals combined to throw 335.1 innings, which averaged out to about 5.1 innings per start. Clearly, those top 3 guys saved the bullpen considerably, getting an extra 4 outs each game that the back-end pitchers couldn’t get.
Next season, Shields, Guthrie, and Jason Vargas are probably good bets to pitch about 200 innings each, give or take a few. The last two rotation spots will likely go to Danny Duffy, and one of Yordano Ventura, Wade Davis, or (gulp) Luke Hochevar. Duffy and Ventura both have electric arms and a lot of potential to be very good starters, but based on both players’ histories, neither one should be counted on to be an innings eater in 2014. It is possible Davis or Hochevar could pitch more innings, but the quality of those innings will almost certainly be lacking.
If Duffy and Ventura are those last two starters, they would likely only provide about 5 innings per start, which is roughly what the 4th and 5th starters did for the Royals in 2013. So in a near-worst-case scenario, the bullpen is about as lightly used as it was last year. I’m not counting on it, but I suppose it is possible that both young pitchers improve their command enough to get closer to 6 innings per start, which would take even more of a strain off of the bullpen.
Another way to reduce the workload for the bullpen would be to add a legitimate number two starter. I’m of the mind that this team needs another impact starter to give them a real chance at taking the division, and a player like Jeff Samardzija or Jake Peavy would be able to eat more innings than the Royals’ young guns. If the bullpen throws even fewer innings in 2014, why should the team waste a roster spot for a position that isn’t going to be used more than a couple of times per week, especially when there are 6 other quality relievers at the Royals’ disposal, plus a handful of others in Omaha? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put another bat on the bench that could be used in late-inning situations?
Having said all that, I’m not foolish enough to expect the Royals to employ a 6-man bullpen. It’s not a widespread strategy, and most MLB teams don’t like to think outside the box very often. With the Royals’ current roster situation, they would likely be better off keeping Maxwell and Dyson on their bench, while holding onto 6 relievers. If things go south a month into the season and they need to add that 7th reliever, they can easily trade Maxwell or another player to make room on the big league roster. A team like the Royals needs to maximize every ounce of value it can from the resources it has, and using a 6-man bullpen could be a creative way to improve the team and climb a little bit closer to the top of the AL Central.